B&W, 1937, 117 mins.

Directed by Jean Renoir

Starring Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Georges Péclet, Jean Dasté / Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak / Music by Joseph Kosma / Cinematography by Christian Matras

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $39.98)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono

The anti-war film to end all anti-war films, Grand Illusion opened just before World War II and suffered from drastic censorship and shoddy print duplication in virtually every country, yet by the 1950s, it had already become regarded as one of the crown jewels of world cinema. Its influence is certainly undeniable, including such diverse films as The 40th Parallel, The Great Escape, and The Deer Hunter, though the actual theme of a "gentleman's war" coming to an end has never been addressed as eloquently or powerfully as it is here.

During World War I, two disparate French soldiers are captured by the Germans and brought to a camp where they come in contact with men from all walks of life. The lower class but intelligent Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and former aristocrat Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) begin a rapport with the Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and after a temporary separation, the three wind up together again under the supervision of an imposing German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The Germans treat their prisoners with relative dignity and consideration; in fact, Rauffenstein and Maréchal respect each other on a basic human level and realize that war as a concept is completely unproductive and a hinderance to the progress of humanity. However, the French soldiers decide to escape, with a memorable sequence in which Maréchal finds love in the French countryside before the jarring, bullet-ridden climax.

Never afraid of delving into unfamiliar genres, director Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game) made his definitive celluloid statement with Grand Illusion, and not surprisingly, his subsequent films in the United States and then back in France could only offer echoes of his impassioned plea for human consideration among nations. The son of Pierre Auguste Renoir, the famous Impressionist painter, Jean Renoir opts for a flat, realist style as a filmmaker, though his sparing and effective fluid camerawork could sometimes give Max Ophuls a run for his money. Scripted and filmed with razor sharp precision, Grand Illusion avoids the flashy pyrotechnics associated with most war films, offering instead a delicate balance of psychology and art. In his unforgettable outfit, von Stroheim immediately steals every scene in which he appears and manages to wipe the skilled Gabin off the screen at several points; the rest of the men do their best with roles best described as familiar archetypes. The Criterion DVD does this film justice by restoring the complete French cut with optional English subtitles, culled directly from a pristine negative that must be seen to be believed. Anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting through bad VHS copies or shoddy 16mm prints in film class won't believe their eyes after seeing this restoration, which also enjoyed a theatrical art house run from Rialto. The disc includes Renoir's much later four minute introduction/trailer to the film for its 1958 U.S. reissue, a feature length audio essay on the film by hisotrian Peter Cowie which focuses on its historical minutae more than its thematic material, pressbook excerpts and essays (including notes on the negative's rescue), and the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards acceptance speech by Renoir and von Stroheim.

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